The UN’s Unprecedented Gamble in the Democratic Republic of Congo

| October 2013
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The UN Forward Intervention Brigade has now been on the ground in the conflict-ridden eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for nearly five months, acquiring combat experience fighting rebels and bolstering the efforts of the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO). Conceived as the UN’s first combat force, the Forward Intervention Brigade fundamentally challenges the traditional tenets of peacekeeping but may be the UN’s best chance at ending the cycle of violence in the Eastern DRC.

Although most of the DRC remains stable since the 2006 national elections, peace within its eastern region has proven elusive, despite the thirteen-year presence of one of the UN’s largest peacekeeping operations. As many as a dozen foreign and local armed groups continue to threaten civilians in the region every year including former Rwandan Hutu genocidaires in the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), the Ugandan rebel group the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), and local militia groups known as Mai-Mai.

Though currently inactive due to on-going peace negotiations with the Congolese government, the M23 rebel group has been a particular concern over the past year due to their strength and brutality.  The M23 defected from the national army in April 2012, citing the government’s failure to incorporate them into state political institutions, which was a requirement of a previous peace agreement between the government and the earlier incarnation of the M23 known as the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP). The M23 is widely believed to be supported by the ethnically aligned Tutsi Rwandan government. Their success in capturing the city of Goma in November 2012 spurred the Security Council to create the Forward Intervention Brigade and authorize it to take offensive action and neutralize all armed groups in the Eastern DRC—the most aggressive mandate given to a peacekeeping operation in UN history.

The Forward Intervention Brigade represents an unprecedented use of the Security Council’s Chapter VII peacekeeping mandate, and risks undermining peacekeeping’s core tenets of impartiality, consent of parties, and restrictions in the use of force. Although the Council stated the brigade was an exception, not a precedent, the brigade’s new role in the DRC expands the boundaries of peacekeeping and risks deepening the conflict rather than resolving it by increasing fighting and consequently the numbers of internally displaced persons. The brigade deployed despite explicit opposition by the M23, and actively fought alongside the Armed Forces of the DRC (FARDC) against the rebels until political negotiations began in September. Combat could resume if a peace deal is not reached during negotiations that are expected to end within weeks. MONUSCO can no longer argue that it maintains an impartial relationship with the M23, which may hinder the UN’s ability to negotiate future peace agreements.

As the first UN-authorized offensive combat force, the brigade is not restricted to the traditional UN peacekeeping standard prohibiting the use of force except in situations that require self-defense or defense of civilians. Therefore, brigade missions may more closely resemble counterinsurgency operations than peacekeeping operations. During an offensive in August, for instance, brigade members included South African snipers along with artillery and mortar teams. Unarmed drones will deploy by year’s end, a first for UN operations. By directly engaging in conflict, the UN will need to determine responsibility for prisoners of war and classification of brigade troops killed in action. Whereas attacking peacekeepers is typically a war crime under international humanitarian law, the UN notably did not use this terminology to describe the combat death of a brigade troop in August, leaving this issue open to dispute. How the UN handles these questions could alter local perceptions of the UN. Instead of impartial peacekeepers, blue helmets may be perceived as combatants, and therefore legitimate targets, which will not only endanger the lives of MONUSCO troops but peacekeepers in fifteen other ongoing missions around the world.

As the UN becomes a party to the conflict, it will cause ethical dilemmas surrounding civilian protection to arise. Collateral damage by the UN is almost assured and rebel groups are increasingly responding to international actions by retaliating against humanitarian actors and civilians. UN military offensives will also require cooperation with the FARDC, a notoriously undisciplined army with a history of human rights abuses. Impunity is widespread throughout the Congolese army, and despite the UN pledge to withdraw support for abusive units, the UN and MONUSCO’s reputation could suffer as a result of this relationship. Civilian support of the UN’s presence is already waning—and could be withdrawn entirely if the brigade supports Congolese army units implicated in human rights violations.

It is unclear how the brigade’s departure from the principles of peacekeeping will ultimately impact future operations in the DRC and elsewhere. Potential host countries may bar the UN from deploying peacekeepers due to a fear of mission creep, sidelining UN peace operations from exercising responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security. If the brigade succeeds in neutralizing and disarming armed groups, critics of traditional peacekeeping mandates may seize on this success as evidence of the inadequacy of previous commitments to deal with intractable conflicts. This carries a two-fold risk: it could reveal other ongoing Chapter VII UN peace operations as inadequate, while also increasing host country demands for similar combat configurations from an already resource-strapped UN.

Despite the risks the brigade poses to UN peace operations and to local and international actors in the area, the brigade could effect meaningful change in the Eastern DRC. The responsibility to protect civilians provides the moral justification to push peace operations into this new frontier. Before the Security Council authorized the formation of the Forward Intervention Brigade, MONUSCO was unable to sufficiently protect civilians. Rebel groups terrorized civilians and the rate of sexual- and gender-based violence in the Eastern DRC was one of the worst in the world. The appearance of MONUSCO as cohabiting with rather than confronting the rebels tarnished its reputation among the civilian population. The brigade thus offers an opportunity to win back local support, as it is better equipped to protect civilians. It has already had a positive effect in Goma, where it repelled the M23 away from the city, the major population center in the region, saving lives in the process.

The intervention brigade’s mandate could also change the calculus for many of the armed groups and spoilers in the region in ways that MONUSCO could not. After military losses to the UN and FARDC forces in August, the M23 has returned to the negotiating table with significantly less leverage than when it posed a direct threat to Goma. Facing military defeat, other armed groups in the DRC may choose to negotiate a settlement rather than risk losing everything in battle. The intervention brigade will also challenge Rwanda’s role in the conflict.  Rwandan-supported rebels are now fighting a brigade composed of soldiers from regional powers including South Africa and Tanzania. Rwanda risks isolation and the loss of international prestige by backing these groups. The brigade could therefore help remove the threat of local and regional spoilers, which would significantly improve the region’s prospects for peace.

So far, the Forward Intervention Brigade has been successful in its first goal, helping push the M23 to the negotiating table in September 2013. Although other armed groups continue to operate and the M23 could return to battle if negotiations fail, the most serious hostilities have ceased, allowing MONUSCO to amplify its work on security sector reform and developing the rule of law, among other UN-mandated activities. The UN, however, has been in a similar situation before: peacekeepers fighting rebels in the Eastern DRC between 2005 and 2007 successfully reduced the potency of these groups. But military success did not translate into long-term peace, as the UN failed to consolidate its gains and properly address the conflict’s underlying causes, including ethnic tensions, poor natural resource management, and interference by regional powers. In order to succeed, MONUSCO therefore needs to follow its military successes with a holistic strategy that centers on implementable state- and capacity-building with a goal toward extending state authority in the Eastern DRC.

The Forward Intervention Brigade will not be a panacea. Creating sustainable peace in the DRC is beyond the brigade’s mandate, but its strength is in its ability to create the space necessary for further UN peacekeeping and peacebuilding endeavors. While the conflict’s complexities should temper expectations for a quick or simple solution to an enduring conflict, the presence of this new, and so far effective, UN force could finally put the DRC on a path to peace.

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